On a dull winter’s afternoon, one that was decidedly spectacular in its banality, I went for a long, slow walk to clear the cobwebs from my head. I was feeling –as my grandma would say- like a right old mardy bum. At that moment, having just left my only job, been left broken-hearted and rejected for scholarships all in the space of a week, I felt rather lost. I’d never before been in a position where I couldn’t see the road ahead and, like a stubborn racehorse at the starting line, I faltered. I was unnerved by my directionless existence. Nonetheless, as Ol’ Blue Eyes would say, that’s life. I couldn’t help but hear Sinatra’s musical pep talk play over and over in my head: ‘each time I find myself flat on my face, I pick myself up and get back in the race.’ In time I would see that to rip it up and start again would be a source of exhilaration rather than exasperation- but for now it was a challenge just to get out of bed. That’s life, indeed.
I decided to do the only thing that I could think to do in my melancholic state of flux: walk. This action of putting one foot in front of the other oils the cogs in my brain, you see, but sometimes the oil drips down onto my heartstrings and turns them a bit gooey. Years spent engrossed in French literature has taken its toll and I confess to be an unashamedly naïve romantic, fancying myself as a flanêuse for the modern age that we live in (and yes, I did just giggle to myself as I wrote that). So, on that dreary afternoon I took off in search of adventure with Baudelairian flair, hoping to find a record or two along the way.
Nothing beats a slow meander through a busy street to distract your mind from turning over like a stuck record; that anonymous crowd that unites you in humanity. In that moment, surrounded by people, your worries dissipate as you concentrate on navigating the ebb and flow of pedestrians. Or rather, as you try desperately to keep moving forward without bumping into anyone, avoid stepping on small dogs’ paws and maintain a constant awareness of your self and your belongings. Living successfully in London requires developing near-superhero levels of hyperawareness; there are small dogs everywhere these days. And so I took to the beaten path and joined a snail-paced crowd of tourists with big shiny cameras, resisting any urge to weave past them and rush off in front. I was an ocean of calm among a sea of stressed sightseers, taking in my metropolitan surroundings as if I too had a camera slung around my neck and a street map in my back pocket. That’s when I first spotted it, or to be exact: that’s when I first heard it.
There, nestled in amongst this row of garages-turned-antiques-troves-turned-coffee-shops, stood this old, Lilliputian record and hi-fi shop. It was little more than a ten by ten foot square rammed from floor to ceiling with towers of speakers, amps and turntables- but to me it was an idyll. From every nook reverberated bass grooves, cymbal clashes and guitar tickles; the Pied Piper’s anorak hymns lured me in to a twisted paradise.
I have been told on numerous occasions that for a girl, I talk an awful lot about hi-fi; my own mother once suggested that my bedroom looked more like a speaker showroom than the room of a teenage girl and asked jestingly ‘where were all the boy band posters stuck to the walls with lipstick traces of kisses, the millennial James Deans- where is Elvis?’ Of course, I had no interest in so-called rock royalty looming over me night and day, his effigy trapped in a pose that I am certain would leave even deities requiring hip replacements, when I could instead listen to his delinquent heirs serenade me at any time. I was on an aural journey of self-discovery, searching for lyrical answers and gathering the necessary tools to do so. This has not changed. My heart still flutters at the thought of one day owning a Linn turntable. I have no shame in my passion for high fidelity, but it feels like a boy’s club to which I have long been refused entry. My foray into this particular hi-fi shop was no exception.
Searching for an amplifier capable of powering a pair of Celestion Ditton 66s has been my quest for a long time now. Currently powered by a not-so-powerful little NAD amp, it sounds like a mouse trying to pull an elephant through a field. Passionate as I may be however, I do not possess a catalogue-like knowledge of every amplifier ever manufactured so that, just as Cher matches her outfits with technical glee in the film Clueless, I might match amp to speaker. I rely instead on the wisdom of others to help me in my search for that yellow checkered suit of the amplifier world.
Walking into this hi-fi trove, I hoped the proprietor might be able to shed some light on the matter. I began talking all things hi-fi with him- a grey-bearded man wearing a panama hat and matching straw-coloured suit. Fittingly, over the course of our conversation, his resemblance to that of a scarecrow became more apparent as he unknowingly scared me off of trading any of my hard-earned money with his wares. Early on in the sales patter, he was interrupted by a young man enquiring about a turntable. He made the mistaken assumption that we were together, even though we very clearly did not know each other and I very clearly looked irritated by this disturbance. Heaven forbid that I was an unaccompanied woman in his shop! He began to answer the young man’s questions, addressing both of us, until I was obliged to interrupt and explain that we were in fact perfect strangers. He looked surprised. Heaven forbid that I was an unaccompanied woman in search of hi-fi in his shop!
Having finished answering the young man’s questions, I was once again granted the proprietor’s attention.
“So, you’re looking for an amp. What speakers do you have?”
“Oh, a pair of Celestion 66s. I’m just looking for an a…”
“Ah, yes. Like those NEFs over there.” He pointed to a pair of quaint bookshelf speakers, walnut tops speckled with dust, their height measured a little below my knees.
“No, not quite. They’re a bit bigger than that.” I gestured their height with my hand, wavering at my shoulders.
“Oh yes, yes. Similar.”
“…Not really.” I replied.
I began to doubt that this man knew what he was talking about, but decided to humour him and see what he would suggest. But for the next twenty-five minutes, he preached his dogma: explaining that my whole system was rubbish, why I should buy one of his motor driven turntables, how awful modern hi-fi is, how Yoko broke up The Beatles. I believe that there was more, but I stopped listening after the first ten minutes when I realised that I would gain no new insight. Patronised, weary-eyed and none-the-wiser, I walked out; unable to speak because of all the steam pouring out of my ears. This happens all-too often, it seems.
My search for the perfect amplifier remains fruitless, until my next foray into the boy’s club.